17 – 28 March and 4 – 8 April 2017
This section covers 870k from Brindisi on the Italian east coast to Pozzallo in southern Sicily from where we took a ferry to Malta - and when returning, 380k from Pozallo to Palermo from where we took a ferry to Sardinia.
Itinerary and weather
The initial idea was to bike across the Italian mainland to Amalfi on the west coast and then head south to Sicily. To do this we were required to do around 70k per day, which seemed conservative. However, the first day we only biked 75k on a flattish stretch (admittedly into a semi-strong wind) and with countless hills/mountains to climb if we continued to Amalfi, it was obvious Sonia wouldn’t be able to make it. So instead of continuing west at Matera, we went south for 50k before going west. Changing the route, I had no idea about elevation, so it was instinct combined with local inquiries. We still had to climb some big hills but mostly they were long and gradual through lovely countryside with lovely views of mountains, valleys, rivers, etc. Expecting camping to be easier off the coast, we stayed inland as long as possible before taking the coastal road south from Castrocucco to San Giovanni where we took the ferry to Sicily. In Sicily, we stayed as much as possible on the east coast road to Pozallo despite having to go through several cities and big towns. Still the main road wasn’t too busy as most people preferred the parallel highway. We passed endless fields and greenhouses but also had some lovely coastal and mountain views including Mount Etna.
Like in Greece, our timing was perfect riding during spring with a multitude of blooming flowers and trees. The day temperature was sometimes down to 16-20C but mostly around 25C though it didn’t always feel like it facing a semi-strong wind. We had several overcast days but only one day with rain - it poured down and with no drainage, the streets turned into ponds and creeks.
Road quality and drivers
On the mainland, we mostly rode main roads and the quality was generally good. The drivers were cautious with only a few people shouting and honking at us. Most annoying was the lack of transit roads around towns making it a time consuming experience to navigate the busy narrrow streets - no wonder Italy is notorious for traffic jams.
Sicily was a completely different story. The drivers were crazy going very fast and cutting corners on the often narrow bending roads - once Sonia was inches from being hit by an oncoming car despite being on the white linie in our side of the road. Riding through towns, the road quality was more often poor but in between towns, it was mostly ok except when we ended up on cosy backroads in horrible quality.
Camping and people
Wild camping is generally not allowed in Italy, but it of course worked out anyway. It was however, often difficult to find camp spots for two tents - the countryside was often open and/or fenced fields while the mountain and coastal regions comprised steep overgrown slopes. A number of times, we ran very late with little chance of finding a camp spot, so we asked for help – a few times we found nobody to ask but the two we did find (old Francesco and young Gianni) were hospitable and both helped us out.
Once we camped just off the road in a regional park. Suddenly a lot of traffic and commotion as well as a police road block only 30m away. They shot 100-150 rounds into the forest just next to us scaring the shit out of Sonia who wanted to tell them we were there. I talked her out of it as we were camping illegally and would have no place to go at this hour, should they tell us to leave. An hour later two cars were towed by, so it turned out just to be an accident. The police were likely bored and just shot randomly into the forest maybe after some animals. Even for me an unusual experience.
Southern Italy is known for its hospitality, but I didn’t have that feeling. Maybe it’s a façade for paying tourists or maybe they are just uncomfortable with the unknown (long-distance bicyclists). As always, I greet everybody I pass by, but here the greetings were rarely returned. Many people didn’t pay attention to us and many had blank stares as if all life had been sucked out of them. However, many old people stared in disbelief/disapprovingly, so maybe we were too unusual for these conservative communities especially in the small mountains villages (sadly almost solely inhabited by old people as the young people move to the big cities to study/work and never come back).
Italians love biking and we encountered thousands of bicyclists along the way. Many were in their own world completely focused on pushing the bike but lots of people greeted us though few were courageous enough to talk to us – maybe the language barrier the they all addressed us as if we were native Italian speakers.
Another thing we observed was how things changed the further south we rode. From Brindisi, we passed big, well-maintained houses, neat gardens and fields as well as new well-maintained cars. The further south we rode, the more ramshackle houses and cars and not least a lot of garbage everywhere so it’s not only a problem in Naples. Obviously, the public system doesn’t work, likely because people have to pay, but how people can live with the views and even worse the smell in the hot summer months, I don’t understand.
We passed a lot of African immigrants where there seemed to be clear division of labour. The women were prostitutes placed some kilometres apart on the main country roads while the men were outside the supermarkets hoping to get the trolley coins by helping people to their cars.
Riding with Sonia
Before we left Greece, we had talked a lot about the potential challenges we would face and still they all materialised plus some additional. In general, Sonia was doing between 50-67% of my speed, so I constantly had to wait for her. I love to push myself and here I hardly ever got the pulse up – only when I fell behind (e.g. fixing the bike) and had to catch up or on the steep sections. Another challenge was late afternoons – it’s my favourite time to bike and I often push extra hard (also to increase chances of finding a camp spot) while Sonia was always tired with no push.
And when we ran late finding camp spots, she blamed me as if I was the tour guide who knew the route and beforehand had identified some easily accessible beautiful spots. I love nice camp spots but often end up in some ”dubious” places because I push late and really don’t care where I camp. The camp spots I found were almost always criticised – ”too hard an uphill push to reach it”, ”not flat enough”, ”too much garbage lying around”, etc. Finally, talking was and ongoing dispute – when camping I’m quiet to avoid whatever challenges comes along if somebody should find me. Mostly being disturbed when tired and just wanting to eat and sleep but of course also avoiding to be asked to leave, police and fines, safety, etc. Being two people we had to whisper when camping nearby other people, but for Sonia this was a challenge and I constantly had to remind her to whisper. What’s the point finding a secluded camp spot if people can hear you talking?
Health, food/water and equipment
As mentioned in the Greek sections, I had had a partly numb foot for 2 months when we took off. It was of course a bit disconcerting that the numbness took so long to disappear, but it didn’t bother me riding. Finally, 3-4 weeks after leaving Greece, I had my normal feeling back. Sonia, however, had endless problems and pain - if it wasn’t one part of the body, it was another. In all of biking together, I don’t think she had a single day without some kind of pain.
Though Italian is amongst my favourite foods, we stocked up in supermarkets and prepared our own food. On the bike, it’s just so much easier being “independent” as you never know when you are hungry and were you are for lunch. Riding late and wild camping make dinners at restaurants impossible. No matter where we asked for water, we were advised not to drink it. The locals allegedly drink bottled water, but except Sonia for a few day, we had no problems drinking it.
My bike was going well, though it sometimes felt a little heavy to push as well as wobbly going fast in curves. Tightening screws and general service check didn’t reveal anything or help, so I dismissed it. Foolish, because after so many years, I know every move and sound of the bike and later my feeling turned out to be justified.
One day I had flat tire and discovered a deep cut into the relatively new rear tire - all the way into the blue puncture free layer. I've had several cut tires before but never this deep, so I didn't have much hope for its survival. Nevertheless, it got a chance - I fixed the flat and we pushed on. However, early next morning it caused another flat and I changed to one of my spare tires. For a long time I had trouble getting my odometer to work properly - it turned out to be the wheel sensor so I changed it to a spare sensor. Finally, one of the straps on my sausage bag broke - it could still be used but of course not tied as tight. The big risk is if the other strap breaks because then I can't use the bag anymore.